The K-pop phenomenon: 'it's pop music on crack'

Inside South Korean pop, a complex system of late-capitalist music manufacturing

On August 27th 2017, Taylor Swift's video for Look What You Made Me Do debuted at the MTV Video Music Awards. The setting was significant - the same VMAs stage had been the birthplace of her by then-legendary feud with Kanye West which formed the subject matter of the single. The accompanying video broke the record for most-watched video in the first 24 hours of release, amassing 43.2 million views on YouTube in its first day. It wasn't really that surprising; in the upper echelons of celebrity, Swift and the Kardashian-Wests inhabit a league of their own.

On August 24th 2018, almost precisely a year later, in rather uncanny timing, a boyband called BTS swooped in to snatch that record from her. This time, the record was surprising – for some. Many Irish pop consumers reacted to this news with the one question we would never ask about Taylor Swift: who the hell are BTS? And how have they accrued global fame great enough to topple T Swift without even popping up on many Irish people's radar?

To the uninitiated, K-pop is a confusing world which you need to put in a South Korean context to understand

The simplest answer is that BTS are a K-pop (South Korean pop) group, currently on a huge world tour that included an appearance The Graham Norton Show two weeks ago. However, the phrase "K-pop" doesn't really just mean "pop from South Korea". K-pop is a genre and an industry, a complex system of late capitalist music manufacturing. You can watch the shiny music videos that this industry churns out and still know nothing about it. You need to talk to a fan – of which there is a growing, globalised army.

In what is known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, South Korean culture has been sweeping the planet in recent years. Dozens of video documentaries by VICE, i-D and other media brands on South Korean fashion, tattoos, plastic surgery and pop music, demonstrate how South Korea is becoming an object of obsession in the western world. Its K-pop music genre was designed to be an addictive cultural export, and this aim is quickly becoming a reality. Even if you don't think it's yet penetrated your cultural bubble, you're wrong - remember Gangnam Style in 2012?

The world of pop music is currently divided into two camps - those who have succumbed to K-pop fever, and those who have yet to be infected. The gospel is spreading rapidly, and all converts seem to be instant fanatics. Nineteen-year-old Matthieu Schwarzmann is one such evangelist.

"K-pop is infectious. That's the whole point of the industry!" he tells The Irish Times. "It churns out very simple 3 minute songs that get stuck in your head. They all have simple choreographies so everyone can dance to them."

What strikes you instantly about K-pop is how intense the fans are, and how perfectly everything is designed to sell, sell, sell. In a BBC documentary aired earlier this year entitled K-Pop: Korea's Secret Weapon?, Radio 1 presenter Adele Roberts described how she witnessed an online reaction unlike anything she'd ever seen when she played a song by BTS. In Seoul, she meets a Scottish fan who actually moved to Korea and learned Korean language to better be able to support her favourite groups.

“That’s what this industry does to you”, Matthieu tells me. “It’s pop music on crack!”

But how does it all work?

A confusing world

“K-pop is run by companies that put together boy and girl groups. These companies have a sort of ‘stock’ of trainees”, Matthieu continues. “The trainees are recruited around age 10 and train in schools for many years before joining a K-pop production company. There are three big companies in K-pop: YG, JYP, SM. If they’re successful, the companies select them to be part of a group, and they debut as an idol around age 16.”

To the uninitiated, K-pop is a confusing world which you need to put in a South Korean context to understand. For example, talent shows are a huge part of the system. Talent shows to Irish people means X-Factor and The Voice, where random civilians compete for a chance at stardom, but in South Korea they serve a totally different purpose. There, they are platforms for the K-pop companies to showcase groups they have already spent years training and curating. K-pop stars (known as "idols") are put through training schools, then combined into groups and marketed with minutely planned release schedules through these shows.

“On these shows, the groups compete to be the winners. Getting your first music show win is what separates you from all the other average K-pop groups. After that you’re basically in with the big kids – your fan base, and therefore your album sales, skyrocket. That is why some companies have rules for the members of their groups such as no cellphones before they get their first win,” says Matthieu.

How did such a tightly controlled and manufactured system of pop emerge? It’s all rooted in South Korea’s politics, culture, economy and history.

Dr John Lie is a South Korean-born professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, and author of the book Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea. Of K-pop's origins, he explains: "South Korea had its own tradition of popular music. But K-pop is a distinct genre wrought by several producers and entrepreneurs intent on generating an export-oriented popular music. That is, there are genres of popular music in South Korea that look like those in the US or for that matter Irish pop music (from folk to rock) - but K-pop emerged almost de novo in the 1990s."

K-pop was the result of the democratisation and ensuing globalisation of South Korea. As detailed in The Transformation of South Korea: Reform and Reconstitution in the Sixth Republic Under Roh Tae Woo, 1987-1992 by Robert Bedeski, the establishment of the Sixth Republic ushered in a new era of freedom, when press censorship was lifted. Prior to this, the state had only two broadcast networks which controlled what the public saw, and showcased only specific musical acts through talent shows on these two networks. Once the Sixth Republic was established, global cultural influences flooded in to the already existing mould of the TV talent show, which continued to hold cultural sway. Groups like Seo Taiji and Boys appeared on these shows in the 90s peddling a new type of pop: a hybrid of existing Korean pop with US pop, R&B, and hip-hop music. This new genre was dubbed K-pop and the Big 3 companies quickly formed around it, seeing its massive market potential.

The Big 3 established a production line where the artists are selected as children, then coached for stardom – every step of the process is under their control. Dr Lie explains that they were able to do this “because there wasn’t a large independent music scene (amateur musicians or local performance venues) in the early 1990s”, record companies as we know them in the West didn’t exist, and there was “an extreme concentration of power and wealth in Seoul”, where the Big 3 companies are based.


The companies established training schools, which became the sole avenue for success in K-pop. Children audition as young as 11 or 12. If successful, they will be asked to sign long-term contracts so exploitative they have become known as “slave contracts”. They are so extreme that Variety reported in 2017 that South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission had demanded that the companies revise the terms. Contracts were once as long as thirteen years but a separate FTC ruling in 2011 finally limited them to seven years.

Many K-pop groups have fallen apart as individual members sue their companies in order to escape the suffocating contracts - the Korea Joongang Daily reported in 2014 that the group EXO had broken up because former members Kris and Luhan filed lawsuits against SM Entertainment, citing unfair division of profits, tight schedules and infringement of privacy. YouTube is littered with former K-pop trainees' "confession" videos, where they detail the punishing lifestyle. "I was only 13. It was extremely tiring. I couldn't handle it," Jessica Lee reveals in one such vlog. "I had to lose weight. I couldn't eat". It's widely reported that K-pop trainees are denied access to smartphones, forbidden from being in relationships and restricted to harsh diets and timetables.

One key term of many slave contracts is that the idols must repay the companies the cost of their decade of intensive training once they become profitable

It seems like a high price to pay for fame and fortune, but fortune normally isn’t in the picture. One key term of many slave contracts is that the idols must repay the companies the cost of their decade of intensive training once they become profitable. The bill can easily amount to millions, meaning the idols have very little to show, financially, for their pain.

The one question you’re left with after hearing all this is: why on earth would you go through it? There are crucial economic and cultural conditions in Korea which sustain the system. “The larger reason for low wages and poor working conditions is that South Korea is a society based on educational credentials (over 80 per cent attend colleges/universities) and there are preciously few jobs that pay well for people who are not hyper-educated. K-pop is one of them. Hence, there is a substantial population of South Korean parents and children who seek fame and fortune in K-pop and are willing to go through long years of training and even low pay at the beginning for the chance to strike it rich”, Dr Lie explains.

Al Jazeera reported in 2011 on South Korean students being driven to suicide by the impossibly high standards and competitive college entry system. K-pop training schools, to many families, may seem like the lesser of two evils.

“Many aspiring K-pop stars believe that this is the only route to success”, Lie continues. “It is probably true that in contrast to the US – where the ideology of genius and talent is strong – South Koreans tend to believe in the virtues of dedication. That is, hard work can overcome born talent, whether in passing competitive exams to get into top schools or in becoming a pop star.”

The South Korean education system and the K-pop system have more than one parallel: they both demand huge dedication from their participants – and they can both kill. Kim Jong-hyun of the group SHINee died by suicide last December, and Seo Minwoo of group 100% died of cardiac arrest this year. While the heart attack cannot be attributed directly to the pressures of performing, the countless videos of K-pop stars collapsing from exhaustion on stage are pretty damning.

The world of K-pop might seem cruel, but as Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool, tells The Irish Times, you really need to take a step back and view it in context: "Yes, K-pop band members have very closely monitored lives – Hyuna just got fired by her label for her choice of boyfriend. But this isn't that different from pre-union Hollywood, when actors were essentially the sole property of one studio and could not have free reign over their own physical appearance. Look at how Rita Hayworth got her start, it's got K-pop written all over it.

“Also, Korean young people are either studying like crazy or working like crazy. K-pop stars’ long hours are the norm in Korea, even if they had chosen a different profession,” she argues.


The Western world may be quick to jump to conclusions when it sees the K-pop industry, simply because it does not understand the sociopolitical context from which it arises. One of the reasons for BTS' Western success is that they differ from other K-pop groups in several ways – they write their own music, they have comparative freedom to use social media and express themselves, and they are signed to Big Hit Entertainment – ie, not one of the Big 3. Youngdae Kim is a Korean music critic who believes that BTS's Western success was a happy accident – they were designed as a Japanese export. "Japan is usually an easier and more lucrative market than the US in terms of record sales and tour," he says.

K-pop has always been a strange hybrid of Korean and Western culture. The music has drawn on US genres, but the extreme work ethic and management system are a product of Korean culture and economy. The new management of Big Hit Entertainment seems to be an unexpected swing towards more US-style norms, which may unintentionally be helping BTS to break that market. “The fact that they co-wrote the music would definitely be a significant factor in the US market, especially for those who value ‘authenticity’ in music and would not listen to K-pop out of disapproval,” Kim argues. “But I don’t think that was actually a deliberate plan by the company”.

The whole genre has become a lightning rod for discussion around cultural appropriation.

“BTS came to the scene when a new kind of idol format started to be popularized, which was ‘Idol hip-hop’,” Kim says. “Pop and hip-hop have been considered two mutually exclusive concepts in the history of American popular music. Although the issue was rather less sensitive to Korean audiences, they were aware of the fact that hip-hop was basically built upon the idea of authenticity and ‘being true to who you are’. In other words, you must write your lyrics at least if you want to be legit! Therefore, idols were given more creative freedom than ever before, actively participating in the process of composing – although the final product was usually polished by professionals. It was a smart but inevitable choice.”

K-pop is a well-oiled, late-capitalist machine designed as a cultural export to draw millions into South Korea. It’s also a source of immense joy to millions around the globe. It is the centre of a cultural dialogue, exerting enormous influence over the worlds of music, fashion and plastic surgery (as fans attempt to achieve the perfect image of K-pop idols), while at the same time continuing to borrow from other music genres.

The whole genre has become a lightning rod for discussion around cultural appropriation. A VICE documentary following the world’s first American K-pop group EXP edition went viral online. The documentary explores how many Western fans accused the group of cultural appropriation, saying such things as: “No white people in my K-pop.” The group’s creator, a Korean woman named Bora Kim, argued that the stance of such western fans was Orientalist. As she points out, many K-pop groups have Chinese and Japanese members, who were chosen by production companies specifically so the groups could be marketed more easily in their respective countries, but Western fans never complain about these particular non-Korean members, simply because they’re all Asian. “It’s exoticising and demeaning and Orientalist”, she says.

"In Korea, we don't get the hate reaction," she says. "When you actually look at K-pop, there's nothing traditionally Korean in it." K-pop is itself built on the borrowing of tropes from other cultures, specifically from hip-hop, which originated among the African-American community of the Bronx in 1970s New York. Western fandom's conversation around what is appropriative and what is not seems selective, and, as Bora Kim says, Orientalist.

Only one thing is for certain – K-pop isn’t going anywhere. Hallyu is continuing to flood the world with the fashion, aesthetics and sounds of K-pop. This month, BTS is addressing the UN. As this cultural phenomenon continues to balloon, you better get into it, or get out of its way.

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